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Tales from Afghanistan: Cricket and Cruel Justice

March 13, 2009

A court in Afghanistan has confirmed an earlier decision to send a student, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, to prison for 20 years for circulating “an essay on women’s rights which questioned verses in the Koran”. Kambaksh was originally going to be executed, but last October the sentence was commuted to imprisonment. It now seems certain that the prison term will stand, over the objections of Western diplomats, unless President Hamid Karzai decides to issue a pardon.

At times like this it’s important to remember that Canada is in Afghanistan to stabilise the country, not to reinvent it. Blasphemy laws may seem deplorable from our perspective, but ultimately the Afghans themselves will decide what role Islam should play in their justice system. Nevertheless, Canadian soldiers are dying in Afghanistan, and it would be easier to accept the costs  of the mission – both human and financial – if we felt that Afghans were people we could like and admire. Episodes like the prosecution of Kambaksh make this rather more difficult, at least for me.

Fortunately, there’s another side to the story. The Independent gave Kambaksh’s brother, the reporter Yaqub Ibrahimi, the opportunity to publish his feelings on the case. Ibrahimi made a point of mentioning the widespread support for Kambaksh within Afghanistan, referring to “protests in 15 provinces in a single day”. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has on its website a characteristically feisty statement condemning “the dark-minded and ignorant judges in the mediaeval courts of Afghanistan” and incidentally claiming that the whole case was partly an act of retaliation by people who felt threatened by some of Ibrahimi’s journalism. There’s clearly much more to Afghan culture than vicious Islamic fundamentalism.

As one illustration of this, I came across a Times article on Afghanistan’s national cricket team. It’s perhaps surprising that the team exists at all, but the amazing part is that they’re actually very good. When the Times profile went to press in January, they were in Argentina for some kind of preliminary qualifying event – you’ll have to excuse the lack of technical vocabulary – for the 2011 World Cup. A victory over the Cayman Islands booked them a trip to South Africa, where the final qualifying round will take place in April. They’ll be competing against eleven other nations, incidentally including Canada, for one of four available places at the World Cup.

Although I’m curmudgeonly about almost all sports, even I can see that the cricket team is one of Afghanistan’s unambiguous successes, and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s become a focus of national pride. Perhaps Canada can demonstrate its friendship for Afghanistan by finding, among the billions of dollars we’re spending on the Afghan mission as a whole, some money to help improve the rudimentary facilities in Kabul. At the very least I hope that our ambassador, Ron Hoffman, has been congratulating the team on its successes. But in case he hasn’t… Congratulations, Afghanistan. And we’ll see you in South Africa.


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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2009 10:23 am

    Good points, and maybe I was being a bit simplistic with my formulation regarding choices of alliances. There certainly is a very difficult road to walk in terms of expressing opinions without being paternalistic. With our army occupying the country, however, I’d suggest that we’re a little blind to our own position if we can claim that our diplomats can offer neutral advice on secular civil rights.

    Another, maybe more important thing occurred to me after I wrote my last post, which is the issue of precedent here. On the one hand, I’m all for not having our government stomping around abroad attempting to rebuild societies in our image – as I said in my first post. However, an issue does disturb me. A couple of years ago, our government (and others) intervened to prevent an Afghan man from being charged and potentially imprisoned for converting to Christianity. Our government, and others, intervened to end the case and force his release. Eventually he was given asylum in Italy to escape the controversy in his native country.

    Interestingly, the interventionist side doesn’t seem to want to bring up the Abdul Rahman case as a comparison issue, either. Kambaksh’s been in jail a while now, awaiting sentencing, and I find it very telling that, despite our claim that we’re in Afghanistan to emancipate women, our governments haven’t rushed in to intervene like they did with Rahman.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      March 14, 2009 4:15 pm

      Yes, the Abdul Rahman case is an interesting parallel, and one that actually hadn’t occurred to me. Good point. Perhaps the difference is partly because Western governments simply have a lot of other priorities at the moment, even within Afghanistan – coping with the Taliban may take precedence over keeping an eye on what the courts do. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to suspect that the West’s attachment to Christianity was a major factor in the Abdul Rahman case. Remove that factor, and it seems that we get rather less interested in upholding religious freedom.

      • March 16, 2009 5:57 am

        I’ve had enough thoughts on this to justify my own blog post, here, but briefly, I think you’ve hit on the nail on the head there. I think in the future we need to have a lot more engagement with groups like RAWA. This issue has prompted me to do some reading and I really like what I see from them.

  2. March 13, 2009 3:32 pm

    Well… they are a signatory to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights…

    This reminds me of a CBC interview with a Northern Alliance spokesperson after the initial invasion in 2001, in which he pledged that the new government would use smaller rocks in its executions. I think the question moves beyond a colonial vision of rebuilding Afghan society (admittedly, as someone who opposed the war to begin with, I don’t have quite the same problem of trying to rationalize this with our mission as certain people who continue to insist that one of our principle objectives is to emancipate women).

    It’s not just a question of us going in and building a mirror image of ourselves, though. Our occupying force chooses allies amidst the local population in order to increase our power. Some people get to be our allies, and some people don’t. The degree of controversy over this indicates, as you point out, that it’s not a simple matter of “the Afghan people choosing” that this is how their justice system will work. There’s obviously ongoing debate and conflict and resistance to established authorities over this.

    And into that milieu step our occupying forces. Whose side are we going to choose to support on this? The Afghan courts, which are presumably part of our “mission” to build sold political institutions in the country? Or RAWA, a women’s rights group that opposes our being there in the first place? Or will Canada take no action either way, which – given our military presence – amounts to tacit support for the courts?

    An intriguing dilemma.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      March 14, 2009 9:50 am

      Now you’ve got me thinking about whether I would rather be stoned with large rocks or small ones. I would think that larger rocks would actually be quicker, and therefore more merciful.

      That important issue aside, I like the way you’ve formulated the problem – the question is which allies to choose among various groups within Afghanistan. However, I think there’s room for working closely with any given group on a particular issue when our views and interests happen to coincide, and agreeing to disagreeing on other matters.

      Regarding Kambaksh’s situation, I suppose I would like to see Canadian diplomats explaining why we think blasphemy laws are generally a bad idea, and making the case for reform in a more secular direction. However, we should also acknowledge that we’re simply expressing an opinion on a matter that Afghans will ultimately have to resolve among themselves. Particularly now that democratic mechanisms (however imperfect) are in place, more substantive intervention would be paternalistic and would only undermine the authority of the Afghan government.

      • March 14, 2009 10:23 am

        I meant to reply to this but apparently made it a whole new post, above. Sorry about that.


  1. The Future of Aghanistan: Cricket « Kridaya

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